thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Sit Down, Devil’s Advocates: SNL Tries On a New Look

In misogyny, TV on April 4, 2014 at 11:04 am

Sarah T.

Comedians who employ racial stereotypes, homophobic slurs and misogynistic language in service of their jokes often try to deflect criticism by arguing that comedy is about pushing boundaries. But it hardly seems edgy to insist on targeting people who already occupy marginalized positions in American culture—particularly when the person telling the jokes is a straight white guy, as they so often tend to be. I mean, Daniel Tosh can insist that his rape jokes are about breaking cultural taboos all he wants, but it seems obvious that all the man is doing is reinforcing the status quo.

There are, however, plenty of ways to be funny and fresh about race, class, gender and sexuality without making the jokes come at the expense of people that American culture seeks to disempower. This season, several sketches on Saturday Night Live—a show that has plenty of diversity problems of its own—have explored topics like privilege, white guilt and the problems that arise when people outside specific cultural groups try to appropriate insider language.

One recent example is “Dyke and Fats,” a sketch penned by the two Saturday Night Live cast members who star in it: Kate McKinnon, the show’s first openly gay female comedian, and Aidy Bryant, the series’ first plus-size female hire.

The sketch, which unfolds as a promotion for a vintage buddy-cop TV series, incorporates multiple cultural stereotypes about fat people and ladies who like ladies. McKinnon’s character, Les Dykawitz, is an arm-wrestling cop who keeps a scroll of dog photos tucked behind her police badge. Bryant’s character, Chubbina Fatzarelli, has a string of bratwurst under her badge and slips a particularly juicy-looking hamburger her phone number. (A very smooth move, and one that I will certainly emulate when I come across perfectly crisped French fries in the future.) The show-within-the-sketch has obvious affection for the characters as they bust down doors and use each other’s bodies to roundhouse-kick a semi-circle of bad guys. At the same time, it seems straight out of the 1970s exploitation boom.

But the last moments of the sketch reveal that it has no interest in exploiting the characters’–or cast members’–identities. And any viewers who were watching and laughing because the sketch affirmed their prejudiced beliefs have a knock-out punch coming.

The shift comes as the police chief, played by guest host Louie C.K., congratulates the cops on a job well done. “Ya hear that, Dyke, we done did it again!” Chubbina says. “Couldn’ta done it without you, Fats,” Les says with a grin. Then Louie C.K.’s character makes a big mistake: he tries to address them by their nicknames for each other.

With that, Chubbina and Les let loose. “You don’t get to call us that! You don’t get to say it!” they yell in a flurry of righteous finger-jabbing. “Those are our words. We love each other. We get to say it. We’re friends.” Their anger is so beautiful; I could just keep watching it over and over again. “No,” Chubbina says, just before the sketch cuts to black. “No.” Then, in an unusual departure for Saturday Night Live, McKinnon and Bryant claim the sketch for themselves by flashing their writing credits across the screen.

That’s it! The chief doesn’t get to have a comeback. He doesn’t get to whine about why he can’t say it if they say it, his other lesbian and fat friends let him say it, isn’t it just reinforcing the power of certain words if groups of people throw around certain language among themselves but refuse to let him do it too. Those last few moments, along with McKinnon and Bryant’s obvious pride in what they’ve created, reveal the true subject of the sketch. When people who inhabit marginalized groups make jokes about themselves, the jokes are coming from a place of love and self-acceptance. That nuance vanishes when the same words fly out of an outsider’s mouth—and then the outsider deserves to get schooled.

Another recent sketch, “28 Reasons,” also foregrounds the experiences of a marginalized group while encouraging white dudes (and in this case, white women) to take a backseat for a change. In “28 Reasons,” a trio of African-American high school students come to the front of an otherwise-white class to offer their Black History Month project: a song titled “28 Reasons to Hug a Black Guy.” The song kicks off with a list of well-respected African-American heroes: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman. This all sounds pretty positive, it’s within the white people’s comfort zones; the teacher and students bop along appreciatively.

Then things get uncomfortable. Productively so.

“Here’s 28 reasons to hug a black guy today,” Jay Pharoah raps. “Number one, we deserve a chance. Numbers two through 28: SLAVERY.”

The class squirms.

“Put your hands up if you’re down with the cause,” Kenan Thompson continues. The class perks up—here’s their chance to show that they’re on his side! They raise their hands happily. “Keep ‘em up if your ancestors owned us.”

The class puts their hands down veeery slowly.

The punchline of the sketch is not the African-American students’ focus on slavery, but white Americans’ discomfort with the country’s violent history and their desire to ignore or gloss over the legacy of racism that remains. The sketch also makes sure to shut down any white people—in this case, a white male student played by Bobby Moynihan—who are arrogant enough to think they have something authoritative to say about the realities of African-American lives.

“I hear what you’re saying and that’s real hip,” Moynihan’s student raps in a nasal squeal, “but allow me to play devil’s advoca—“

That’s when the teacher makes him sit down. Their job right now is to be quiet and pay attention—and to say sorry on cue when the song asks them to.

“Very cool,” McKinnon’s teacher says as the song concludes. “Very sorry, and very cool.”

Indeed it is.

Both sketches are testaments to the fact that jokes about race, sexuality and women’s bodies are by no means off limits. But they’ll be a whole lot funnier, not to mention meaningful and interesting, if they come at the expense of people who benefit from vast amounts of privilege–and if the comedians who are making the jokes have real experience embodying marginal identities.

In general, Saturday Night Live is hardly a poster child for progressive comedy or for diversity. But recently—under internal pressure from African-American cast members Pharoah and Thompson as well as external pressure from a culture that’s more and more vocal about pushing for multicultural representation—the show has been trying to expand its range of perspectives. The series added a fourth non-white cast member, Sasheer Zamata, in January, along with two new African-American women writers, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones.

As the show becomes more diverse, it’s also starting to own up to the ways its comedy has centered the white, heterosexual, mostly male experience. The more Saturday Night Live expands its cast and writer’s room to include people from a wide range of backgrounds, the more it will let people from marginalized and under-represented groups speak (hilariously) for themselves. As for everyone else? Like Louie C.K.’s police chief and Moynihan’s student, they’ll have to learn to shut up and listen.

Related posts:

“Try This Instead:” Interview with Cameron Johnson

The Many Roles of the Divine Melissa McCarthy

Tina Fey’s Nerd Rage Burns “Women Aren’t Funny” to the Ground

  1. I think it is hard to identify why comedy is funny, offensive or enlightening, but you’ve hit the nail on the head. I gave up on Saturday Night Live in the eighties after a particularly ugly sketch about a pedophile uncle babysitting two little girls — maybe it is time to give it another try.

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